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Friday, December 7, 2012


Dreams have always been important to people.

In ancient times, dreams served several metaphorical or symbolic purposes. They were communications between the gods and man. The Romans and Greeks believed that dreams were a form of prophecy and the interpretation of dreams was deemed of the highest importance. More recently, Sigmund Freud developed the theory that dreams represented repressed longing, and their successful interpretation helped resolve emotional conflicts.

A once prominent neurobiological theory, called “activation synthesis”, says that dreams don’t actually mean anything and that they are merely electrical impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories. But this is a less than satisfactory conclusion.

Today, among the new breed of evolutionary psychologists, new theories are emerging stating that dreams really do serve an important purpose. New clinical research is trying to determine what real purpose they serve, and how and why we remember our dreams.

A popular current theory is called “threat simulation” which posits that dreaming is an ancient biological defense mechanism. Dreams provide humans (and some other mammals) with an important evolutionary advantage by repeatedly “simulating” potential threatening events. Therefore preparing our neuro-cognitive ability to anticipate and avoid these threats. You don’t have to dream about sinking into quick sand too many times before you know to go around it, and you don’t have to have the actual experience in order to prepare for it.

There are three recently published research studies that have changed the thinking of the psychology profession. Researchers at the University of Rome have examined how we remember our dreams. They believe that the chances of recalling our dreams depend on our brain’s oscillating electrical voltage. They have measured subjects’ brain waves during various stages of sleep. It has been known for years that a person awakened from REM sleep will be more likely to remember their dreams, now they have found that low brain wave frequencies also prompt people to remember their dreams. The conclusion is that the electrical activity we employ while dreaming is the same as when we create memories while we are awake.

Another study conducted at UC Berkeley has confirmed the link between our dreams and our emotions. Reduction in REM sleep, meaning less dreaming, affects our ability to function in complex social situations. A third study has finally resolved where in the brain dreaming occurs. This has been determined by evaluating people who have lost the ability to dream (called Charcot-Wilbrand Syndrome), but show no neurological symptoms, against discovered brain lesions in the visual cortex. Therefore dreams are generated in the physical region of the brain that is associated with emotion and visual memories, when lesions are not present.

These recent studies have demonstrated the possible purpose of dreaming. Dreams help us to resolve (process) our emotions by building and storing memories of them. What we experience in our dreams is not real, but the emotions encountered in them are real. The mechanisms the brain uses to create dreams resolves the negative emotions associated with anxiety. Memories, emotions, and dreams are all intertwined and interrelated.

(The concepts summarized here are adopted from the writings of Sander van der Linden, a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science)

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